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Greener Grilling May Be on Its Way with an Environmentally Friendly Charcoal

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ARS has developed a “foam charcoal” that is easier to light and therefore eliminates the need for lighter fluid. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Summer is the time of year when many people fire up their backyard grills. Arguably, there is nothing that tastes more like summer than a burger, hot dog, chicken, or vegetable cooked on a charcoal grill.  

Each year, millions of consumers use charcoal briquettes as a fuel for grilling. But those who use charcoal-fueled grills typically use lighter fluid or self-lighting charcoal to start their fire, and both contribute to air pollution around residential neighborhoods. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have your favorite grilled foods and help the environment? ARS scientists may be able to help with  an environmentally friendly, lightweight, self-lighting charcoal.

Most charcoal briquettes are difficult to light because of their density; only their surface is exposed to air—an essential ingredient for starting a fire.

At the Western Regional Research Center’s Bioproducts Research Unit in Albany, CA, ARS plant physiologist Gregory Glenn reasoned that a porous briquette should be much easier to light and therefore eliminate the need for lighter fluid. To test his theory, Glenn used a foaming technique he learned from working with foamed concrete to develop a porous, foam briquette.

“The experimental, foam briquette is created by combining a conventional crushed or powdered charcoal mixture with a surfactant (a foaming agent) and water then mixing and whipping it to create a charcoal-foam slurry, which can be poured into molds and dried into shapes like briquettes, logs or cubes,” said Glenn. “The charcoal’s porous structure promotes the flow of oxygen around the briquette, which enables it to ignite quickly and easily without the use of lighter fluid—simply hold the match to the briquette and it will light. Then it can be used as a starter briquette to light the rest of your charcoal.” 

In theory, briquette manufacturers could vary the amount of surfactant used in the manufacturing process and thereby customize the cooking (burn time) and heating characteristics of the resulting charcoal product to suit the needs of the customer. Increasing the density of the charcoal-foam increases the burn time while decreasing the density has the opposite effect.

This new “foam charcoal” will contribute to less airborne particles and pollutants, helping consumers comply with regulations when air quality alerts are issued in their area. And, best of all, because this new charcoal eliminates the need for lighter fluid, you won’t end up with particulates from lighter fluid condensing on the food you are cooking.

While this new type of charcoal is not yet commercially available, ARS scientists have filed a patent on the  technology which is now available for licensing. — By Nancy Vanatta, ARS Office of Communications.